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Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection is associated with elevated levels of inflammatory cytokines in the serum and cerebrospinal fluid of infected persons, but the sources of these proteins as well as the specific stimuli which trigger their production and release have not been fully defined. In this study, we evaluated the ability of HIV-1-specific cytotoxic T-lymphocyte (CTL) clones derived from seropositive persons to release gamma interferon (IFN-gamma), tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), and TNF-beta upon contact with target cells presenting viral antigen. Peripheral blood- and cerebrospinal fluid-derived HIV-1-specific CD3+ CD4- CD8+ CTL clones as well as freshly isolated peripheral blood mononuclear cells from infected persons were tested in parallel for HIV-1-specific cytotoxicity and cytokine release. Target cells consisted of autologous and allogeneic B-lymphoblastoid cell lines sensitized with synthetic HIV-1 peptides containing the epitopes recognized by these CTL. Cytokine production was measured by specific enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay of culture supernatant fluid. HIV-1-specific CTL clones directed at envelope, Gag, reverse transcriptase, and Nef epitopes specifically released IFN-gamma, TNF-alpha, and TNF-beta upon contact with their relevant target epitopes but not following contact with irrelevant epitopes. These cytokines were released in an HLA class I-restricted fashion, and release was detectable as early as 4 to 6 h of incubation and remained elevated at 48 h. Fresh peripheral blood mononuclear cells from a seropositive person likewise released IFN-gamma in an antigen-specific and HLA class I-restricted manner when incubated with target cells presenting a peptide containing a CTL epitope, paralleling the HIV-specific cytolytic activity of these cells. These studies indicate that in addition to mediating direct cytotoxicity, HIV-1-specific CTL may affect other immune responses by releasing IFN-gamma, TNF-alpha, and TNF-beta. Elevated levels of these cytokines which have been detected in serum and cerebrospinal fluid of infected persons may be due at least in part to the persistent HIV-1-specific CTL response.